LAHORE (AP) – Pakistan's opposition leader defied house arrest yesterday to lead anti-government protests that briefly turned violent before becoming a jubilant show of force against the country's pro-Western president.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif called the mass rally a "prelude to a revolution."
The power struggle between the former prime minister and President Asif Ali Zardari threatens to paralyze the government and, alarmingly for the US, distract the nuclear-armed country from its fight against Taliban militants operating along the Afghan border.
Hundreds of police surrounded Sharif's residence in Lahore, carrying an order for his house arrest, party spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed said. But Sharif, who denounced the order as illegal, later left the house in a convoy of vehicles and headed into town.
Riot police had earlier fought running battles with stone-throwing protesters, turning the downtown into a battle zone littered with rocks and clouded with tear gas and smoke. A mob smashed windows of buses parked along the route of Sharif's convoy.
But by evening the mood was festive as police pulled back, and thousands of flag-waving supporters and cheering lawyers turned out to cheer Sharif, a local favorite.
"People have responded very overwhelmingly to the call of the hour, and I am thankful to the nation," Sharif told Geo television by phone from his car. "This is a prelude to a revolution."
Washington worries that the crisis will further destabilize the shaky the year-old government and prevent it from being an effective ally in the fight against insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan.
Suspected militants attacked a transport terminal in northwestern Pakistan used to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan before dawn yesterday and torched dozens of containers and military vehicles, police said.
The gathering in Lahore was the biggest yet in the buildup to plans for a mass sit-in in front of Parliament in the capital today.
The government has refused permission for the indefinite sit-in, arguing that it would paralyze the government and present a target for terrorists. It has put the army on alert in case the unrest gets out of hand.
Though Sharif, his politician brother and scores of other opposition party members were initially ordered under house arrest, Sharif was allowed to leave his residence unchallenged.
Rao Iftikhar, a senior government official, said authorities had reached an "understanding" with Sharif that he would address the rally and return home.
But Sharif said his "destination" was Islamabad and his slow-moving convoy wended its way toward one of two main exit roads leading to the capital, about 180 miles (300 kilometers) to the northwest.
Iftikhar said the government would not allow the protesters to march on Islamabad. Authorities already parked trucks across major roads on the edge of Lahore.
Some of the first demonstrators to pick their way past barricades to reach the courts on Sunday pelted riot police ringing the area with rocks. Police responded with tear gas, and beat several protesters with batons.
Associated Press reporters say several injured police officers being helped away. A handful of protesters were detained and bundled into police vans.
Later, the crowd swelled to many thousands. Many were black-suited lawyers campaigning for an independent judiciary, but most appeared to be Sharif supporters chanting "Here comes the lion!" in reference to his party symbol and "Go Zardari go!"
The political turmoil began last month when the Supreme Court disqualified the Sharif brothers from elected office, over convictions dating back to an earlier chapter in Pakistan's turbulent political history.
Zardari compounded the crisis by dismissing the Sharifs' administration in Punjab, Pakistan's biggest and richest province, of which Lahore is the capital. The brothers then threw their support behind plans by lawyers to stage the sit-in.
On Saturday, after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to both Zardari and Nawaz Sharif by telephone, the government announced it would appeal the Supreme Court ruling in the coming days.
Zardari refuses to reinstate a group of independent-minded judges fired by his predecessor, former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
Many observers suspect Zardari fears the judges could challenge a pact that quashed long-standing corruption charges against him and his wife, slain former leader Benazir Bhutto.